Students get hands-on career experience

Jennifer Davis

Thirteen-year-old Katlyn Baker never picked up a hammer before Wednesday, and the Washington eighth-grader may never again if she gets her dream job as a wedding planner.

Still, spending the day hammering nails, laying bricks, using a backhoe and putting up wallpaper was "fun" and, you never know, the exposure to the building trades just might click something for Baker in the future.

That's what the West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council is hoping for in reaching out to nearly 1,000 area students through its 11th annual Construction Industry Career Expo.

The four-day event at Exposition Gardens, which ends Friday, is showcasing 10 different trades - from bricklayer to steamfitter - offering the kids a chance to do something hands-on with each.

Corey King, now a 21-year-old painter's apprentice, was at the expo Wednesday demonstrating his trade when just a few short years ago he was walking through it.

"This inspired me," King said. "I was looking for good pay and easy work. I didn't know what I wanted to do. (The expo) opened my eyes to different careers."

Ginger Johnson is executive director of the Tri-County Construction Labor-Management Council, another sponsor of the expo.

"We felt there was a need to introduce the building trades to students at an age when they're starting to think about their future career. A lot of times there are misconceptions about what skills are needed in the construction industry, and this is a fun and hands-on way to educate them," Johnson said. "Math and communication skills, but particularly math. Math is huge. I hear from a lot of apprenticeship coordinators who say they need kids who are stronger in math."

Like many industries, the building trades faces a shortage of future workers and the need for exposure is greater now since many schools, including those in District 150, have either dropped or curtailed vocational education programs.

"I remember when I first applied for an apprenticeship and I was competing against 150 others. Now, we're lucky to get 80 or 90 apply," said Marty Helfers, a steamfitter and associate director of the West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council. "For many years, the trades just weren't publicized."

Still, Helfers says the expo is helping. A recent survey of steamfitter apprentices had 20 percent of them saying they had been exposed to the trades through this expo.

Select students in Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford, Fulton and Marshall counties attended the event, all of them eighth-graders.

"We try to target the right kids. Not everyone is going to be interested," said Penny DuBois, special populations coordinator for PERFECT, the Peoria Educational Region for Employment and Career Training. "The educators love it because each booth stresses the math skills. I was talking to a Lindbergh (Middle School) teacher and she was thrilled that the carpenters are showing them how to measure because that's something they're learning right now."

For every Baker, who was more interested in having a day out of school, there was a kid like 13-year-old Ross Gaunt of Morton, who already thinks his career will be in the construction industry.

"It was pretty fun. We got to lay bricks, put up wallpaper, run an impacter and hit some nails into some wood," said Gaunt, adding the bricklaying was his favorite since "it's something I've never done."

Jennifer Davis can be reached at (309) 686-3249